Virtue is its own reward in this wonderfully compact and gentle fable from the Finn who gave us the world's first piano accordion supergroup in the 1989 high-concept spoof Leningrad Cowboys Go America.

Its agreeably stagey and fairy-tale quality makes it an ideal starting point for those unfamiliar with Kaurismaki's tinder-dry deadpan comedy.

It's the second film he's made in French, after 1992's lovely La Vie de Boheme, which it references - the main character Marcel Marx (Wilms), refers to his past life as an indigent playwright in Paris. Now, though, Marcel is a shoeshine man in the port city of the title, touting for business at the railway station.

After a hilarious stand-alone opening sequence which sets the screwball tone, he becomes unwittingly involved in the fortunes of Idrissa (Miguel), a stowaway African refugee, who is being pursued by an unsmiling cop called Monet (Daroussin, from Conversations with my Gardener). What follows is a ruefully comic take on the same material that was treated with barely contained rage in Philippe Lioret's Welcome a couple of years ago.


Marcel and his devoted wife Arletty (Outinen) live in a backstreet neighbourhood and are kept afloat only by the indulgence of the baker and grocer. As the three - with plenty of local assistance - conspire to ensure Idrissa is united with his mother in London, we get to bask in the warmth of their working-class solidarity.

The self-conscious compositions and settings - the latter looking like pastel-painted stage sets - and the artificial, almost hokey style in which the lines are delivered are all a part of the film's charm. Improbability is the least of its worries. It's a fairy tale, after all, so when Arletty, diagnosed with a terminal illness, is told by doctors that "miracles happen" and replies "not in my neighbourhood", Kaurismaki's nod and wink are almost audible.

The film treads around the edges of both sentimentality and pastiche with a surefooted grace, utterly devoid of irony or self-regard. Like a kid's story, it has no pretensions. It's a sheer delight and the director's best yet.